“I hated my therapist,” I said weakly. “Besides, where would we find somebody trained in the psyche of the distressed chimera?”
“It’s a niche field,” Nathan said, and offered me a small, hopeful smile.
I searched his eyes for some sign that he was lying, and couldn’t find it. I never found it, no matter how many times I looked. Maybe because it wasn’t there, and maybe because the lies were too big and too deep to be visible to anyone—not him, and certainly not me. How could he love me now the way that he’d loved me when he thought I was just like him? It didn’t make any sense. I didn’t feel the same way about myself as I had before I learned where I had come from. It was impossible for Nathan to be the only person in the world who really didn’t care.
Or was it? I didn’t feel the same way about myself anymore, but I didn’t feel any differently about him. Maybe it was the same for him, just… in reverse.
Those thoughts were big and complicated and hard, and I was tired of arguing with myself—so tired of arguing. So I shunted them to the side, sweeping them away like so much trash, and leaned forward to kiss him. Nathan responded by releasing my other hand and pulling me closer, ignoring the irritated grumbling noises from Beverly.
This time, there was no mistaking the pounding of my heart for the sound of drums. Nathan’s lips tasted faintly of mouthwash, which made me smile. He scooped me up, dropping me into his lap, where the pressure of his erection against my hip made it plain that he was as glad to see me as I was to be seen.
After that, there was no stopping, for either one of us. He stripped me out of my nightgown without lifting me from his lap, and then pushed me back against the bed as he removed his lab coat. Beverly grumbled more and jumped down to the floor, trotting across the room to join Minnie in the dog bed. I laughed, reaching forward to undo Nathan’s fly, and then nothing remained but the things we did share: skin and sweat and physicality, and the sweet knowledge that each of us was loved enough to make this moment possible. Moments like that one—not sexual, necessarily, but absolutely connected, absolutely in synch—are where humanity lives.
Nathan needed another shower by the time we were done, and I still needed my first one. He pulled his trousers and sweater back on while I wrapped myself in the comfortable largeness of his lab coat, enjoying the feeling of cotton against my bare backside as we walked down the hall to the employee showers. Not every floor had its own locker room. The lab level had two, probably because the scientists and researchers who used to work here were dealing with sticky substances all day, and no one wanted to deal with dripping molasses all the way home.
“I’ll be right back,” said Nathan, kissing me quickly before we parted ways at the entrance to the male and female showers. Not everyone paid attention to the distinction anymore—gender binaries seemed a lot less important after the apocalypse, if they had ever really been important in the first place—but splitting up was the best way to make sure we might actually make it downstairs in time for the last of the breakfast service.
The shelves in the women’s showers were cluttered with a wide assortment of hair care products and soaps, ranging in quality from salon brands to the sort of things that used to be sold at drugstores for a dollar a bottle. Several of Dr. Cale’s interns were conducting what they called “comparison tests,” and had determined that most of the salon brands were functionally identical to the Costco house brands.
“This would have saved me a fortune if I’d known before everything was free,” one of them had confessed drunkenly to me once, right after I had walked in on them shampooing one another’s hair. After that, I’d gotten a little more careful about showering alone. It wasn’t the nudity that bothered me. It was the expectation that I would know how to be social in a situation that no one had ever modeled or explained. People were complicated, and “complicated” was another word for “confusing as hell.”
I sluiced off quickly, using a cherry-scented shower gel to wash myself off while the combination shampoo and conditioner worked at baking the stiffness and snarls out of my hair. I could be in and out of the shower in half the time it took Nathan, usually, because I didn’t much care about what combination of products I used as long as they accomplished the solitary goal of making me clean. Rinsing myself, I ran my fingers through my hair to break up the worst of the knots and turned off the water before starting for the exit.
It hadn’t been long enough since my escape for me to need a haircut. I wanted one. I wanted one so badly that I sometimes woke up in the middle of the night with images of scissors dancing in front of my eyes. I didn’t want anything he had done to me to last. At the same time, cutting my hair—which was mine, it belonged to me, it grew out of my scalp—felt like an admission of defeat. Maybe it was a little, stupid thing, but it felt like if I cut it off, he would win. So I dried it as quickly as I could, and tried not to look at my reflection in the mirror.
I was fully dressed by the time Nathan came back to our room from the men’s shower, toweling off his hair as he stepped through the door. I smiled and held out his clothes. “Breakfast?”
“Breakfast,” he agreed.
He was still slightly damp when he got dressed. I helped, which nearly resulted in us needing another turn in the showers. Finally, though, we were walking toward the elevators, fully clothed and ready to face the day ahead.
Two weeks in the candy factory had acclimated me to the layout of the place: I was no longer pressing random buttons and then being surprised by whatever floor I happened to wind up on. Two weeks had also acclimated everyone else to my presence. There were fewer weird looks and jumps, and more quiet avoidances.